How to grow your own garlic — and why it matters

17 July 2023

“Stop and smell the garlic! That’s all you have to do.” — William Shatner

The word is out about homegrown garlic. And the word is flavor.

Go ahead and ask: Doesn’t all garlic taste like … well, garlic?  Not even. Think about buying garlic at the supermarket; what’s the selection like? You’re given just one type of basic garlic bulb from a grocery store basket to bring home to finish your special sauce. Imagine if you could only buy one type of pepper or apple for the rest of your life … no jalapeno, no honeycrisp. Are you kidding?

The range of garlic flavors is broad and varies whether you’re eating it raw, roasted or baked. Wine can be described as dry, oaky, fruity, etc. Garlic flavors are wide-ranging too. Add your own to the list: subtle, mellow, earthy, rich, strong, mild, spicy, sweet, lasting, explosive, nutty, hot, full, and fiery hot.

The only way you’ll have a better selection of garlic, which means a broader range of flavor characteristics, is to plant and grow your own. Fall is the best time to plant garlic for early-summer harvest (more on that below). It likes a long growing season to establish deep roots and form large, healthy bulbs.

The earliest record of garlic used by humans dates back nearly 6,000 years. It was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun along with lapis lazuli artifacts and gold. Garlic was an important part of many early cultures. They figured out how well garlic served their diet in taste, food preservation and even commerce.

Need-to-know garlic basics

Plant and grow your own garlic in the fall for the largest, best tasting homegrown ever. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Garlic (Allium sativnum) is in the allium genus, same as onions, so they will need some curing time after harvest to form the papery outer shell. There are two subgroups of garlic: hardneck (bolting) and softneck (nonbolting) varieties. There are cultivar types to choose from under each variety. This sounds confusing, but once you read about the growing and flavor characteristics of the cultivars sold on the market today, you’ll know which ones you wish to grow.

Plant some of both. Hardnecks will send up an impressive flower stock (called a scape) next spring. Grocery stores often sell garlic scapes this time of summer; they are a culinary hit used in pestos, sauces or cooked like asparagus.

Hardneck garlic has outstanding flavor, and is highly recommended for making salad dressings and pressed fresh over vegetables. It is also delicious when baked or eaten raw for health benefits. Hardneck bulbs can grow to a large size yet have fewer cloves (four to 12) per bulb. They are very easy to peel, which is much appreciated by gourmets. Hardnecks have a much shorter shelf life than softnecks, ranging from three to six months or so after harvest and curing.

Softnecks do not grow a flower scape, which makes them easier to handle for braiding and growing for commerce. They produce several cloves per bulb (up to 20 in some cases) and are tightly wrapped, which gives them a longer storage period than hardnecks, up to nine or 10 months or more under the best storage conditions.

Softnecks are the type you find in grocery stores. They can be mild in taste or have quite a strong bite. Just as hardnecks, there is a range of flavors with softneck garlic.

There can be numerous cloves in softneck bulbs, so when planting use the largest cloves. Save the smaller ones for eating/cooking or plant them in a pot indoors and grow garlic chive; just snip off the greens to use in dishes.

Where to buy and how much to plant

Use garlic from quality garden centers or farmers market planting stock instead of buying at the grocery store garlic. You don’t know if the grocery store garlic was treated to prevent sprouting or how it was stored.

Each individual clove on the bulb is planted (not a whole bulb at once), which will grow into one full bulb when harvested the following spring in late June or into July. Planting garlic is generally sold locally in quantities of one to three bulbs per cultivar. Mail orders are sold by the bulb, by the quarter to half to full pound or as variety packs.

Let’s say you wish to plant two hardneck bulbs which have 12 cloves per bulb; you’re actually planting 24 garlic plants. Softneck garlic with more cloves per bulb will grow more plants. It’s up to you how much room you have to grow garlic and how long you want to cook with homegrown versus store-bought. The more you plant, the less you’ll have to buy from a store.

Look for quality garlic planting stock at independent garden centers each fall. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

If you only want a few plants, then you’ll only need a bulb or two. Consider going in with a friend when shopping locally or online to try different cultivars.

Keep in mind that mail-order availability decreases in the fall, so get your orders in now. They’ll ship when it’s time to plant anytime from September through October. Get them planted before the ground freezes, just like ornamental bulbs. Local garden centers receive their garlic planting stock in the fall, so plan on shopping then.

Planting basics

I plant in raised beds in a sunny location. In-ground beds work well, too, or anywhere there’s good soil without nearby root competition from other plants. Just remember where they are planted so you can water them through the winter if moisture is scarce.

Sun is important as well. Planting cloves in part shade in the fall is OK, if the area starts getting more sun after the winter solstice, then full sun by the June or July harvest.

Garlic doesn’t grow well in compacted soil or heavy clay. I add a balanced fertilizer to the soil a few weeks before planting. Garlic isn’t a high-nitrogen feeder, but it does need some nitrogen. Too little nitrogen may produce yellow plants, less vigor and smaller bulbs.

Plant individual clovers pointed side up 2-3 inches deep. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Gather your materials prior to planting: bulbs, plant labels, trowel, box or tray to hold separated bulbs, and mulch. Remember that one bulb will grow from one clove so plan accordingly. And use the largest cloves to plant to yield the largest bulbs.

On planting day, I carefully open the bulb and separate the cloves, not to worry if the papery sheath falls off. Place the cloves (pointy side up) on top of the soil spaced 4 to 6 inches apart with the rows 8-10 inches apart. After placing, plant each clove 2-3 inches deep. If the soil is nice and workable, then simply push the clove down into the soil, or dig a 3-inch-deep trench and place the cloves 4 to 6 inches apart, then cover with soil.

After planting, use a 2- to 3-inch layer of shredded leaf or weed-free straw mulch over the planted cloves and water it well. With mild fall weather, green above-ground leaves may start growing, which is fine. The most growth takes place in the spring when the weather warms up.

Through the winter, renew the mulch and water once or twice a month if it’s been dry. If spring is rainy, remove the mulch so the growing bulbs won’t risk getting mold. Stay on top of weed removal around the plants. In early spring, spray the green leaves with a liquid fish-emulsion-type fertilizer to give them a nutrient boost.

Harvest tips

As mentioned, fall-planted garlic is ready to be harvested anytime from late June into July. Growing garlic in the foothills or at higher elevations may require a few more weeks before harvest. Keep some of the largest bulbs for planting in the fall if you can control yourself from eating all you’ve grown.

The flower scape on hardneck cultivars need to be cut off the plant a couple of weeks before harvest. Try to cut them down when the scapes have curled downward and before it begins to grow straight up. Doing so allows the bulb to focus on more bulb growth before harvest. Cut scapes off to about 3 inches or so from where the scape grows from the plant. Store them in the refrigerator until used.

Keep plants watered up to about a week before harvest; they shouldn’t be harvested in muddy conditions or when the soil is overly dry.

Let the plant tell you when it is ready for harvest. Plants start browning from the bottom up and from the tips inward. When approximately five to six leaves remain green, it’s time. Some people harvest when the bottom half of the plant is mostly brown and the upper is mostly green (what I do). Loosen the soil around the bulb with a fork or spade and carefully lift. Do not pull plants from the ground.

If the plants are completely brown or have been in the ground too long, the bulb starts to separate (you’ll see individual cloves) and it won’t cure well or last as long.

Garlic is ready for harvest when 5-6 leaves remain green. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

After harvest, get the plants out of the sun and into a basement or area where there’s good air circulation, not a hot garage. No need to wash or scrub them clean; instead, use your hand to brush off any dirt (lightly). Let the whole plant dry on newspaper or hang in bundles of six to 10. This will cure the bulbs and form the papery outer shell, just like onions. In about four to six weeks, cut off the brown dry leaves close to the top of the bulb. Cut the roots off, too. Now it’s OK to fully clean them with a soft brush (no water).

Store the garlic in mesh bags in an area with humidity around 50%; a wine cellar is ideal if you have one. Softneck types can store up to nine or more months. Hardnecks usually last three to six months, so use them first. Bulbs that become soft or mushy are past their prime.

If you’re wondering if can use fresh garlic right away in recipes or raw, heck yeah! Just use the whole bulb within a few days (store in a glass bowl; never refrigerate garlic). Freshly harvested garlic is surprisingly mild tasting; it develops more flavor and kick as it cures and ages.

Betty Cahill speaks and writes about gardening in Colorado. Visit her at for more gardening tips.

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